Posted 5th Apr 2017
If you have a hankering to keep hens but don’t know where to start, then a day spent on the South Yeo Farm East Poultry-Keeping for Beginners course will arm you with all you need to know to get started, as our editor Anna-Lisa De’Ath discovered
South Yeo Farm East is tucked away in the rolling Devon countryside north west of Dartmoor and the picturesque drive there certainly puts you in a good frame of mind for learning. On arrival, I was met by farmers Gillian and Ian Dixon and shown through to the purpose-designed classroom housed in one of their farm buildings. This bright, airy room has plenty of chicken-related books and information to browse though while you sip on a cuppa and munch on a biscuit while the rest of your group arrive, all accompanied by the adorable chirruping coming from the incubator in a corner of the room where a clutch of eggs are hatching out. Class sizes are kept to a maximum of ten so you’ll have plenty of opportunity to ask questions and learn from each other. Our group was a mix of total novices, some with a little bit of chicken-keeping experience and others who’d had birds in the past but wanted a bit of a refresher before getting back into chicken-keeping. The relaxed atmosphere allowed us all to feel comfortable enough to ask ‘this may be a silly question but...’ without feeling embarrassed. In fact most of us ended up asking questions that the others wanted to know the answers to as well!
The morning is spent learning about the rules and regs you’ll need to comply with if you’re thinking about keeping birds – and there are more than you think! Next, Gillian guided us through the different breeds and types of poultry there are – and believe me there are a lot! She carefully explained which are best for laying, which are better for meat and discussed the best places to go when it comes to buying your birds. We learned about how to introduce new birds to the rest of the flock, then it was out onto the farm to meet Gillian’s birds and look at the different types of henhouses she has on the farm. Gillian keeps around 80 birds at South Yeo Farm East, including some ducks and geese, as well as the chickens. And there are lots of different breeds to meet, including Silkies and Pekin Bantams. There are also plenty of different houses to look at, from static sheds to movable coops on wheels. Gillian carefully talked us through the pros and cons of them all. Then it’s back to the classroom for a cuppa and to eat our packed lunches, while chatting away about what we’d learned so far and our plans and dreams for our own flocks of birds.
After lunch Gillian taught us about eggs - from which breeds of hens lay which colour eggs, what to look for in a healthy egg, how to hatch them (should you wish to) and what you need to know to comply with all the rules and regs if you want to sell your eggs. As well as the chicks that were hatching out in the incubator in the corner of our classroom, Gillian also had some day- and week-old chicks for us to meet and handle – accompanied by much cooing and aaahing from the whole class! We went on to learn about healthcare and how to treat poultry for the most common pests and diseases which can they be susceptible to. Then we headed outside onto the farm once more for a hands-on practical session with the birds. Gillian showed us how to recognise common health problems, such as mites, lice and scaly leg, and how to treat them. We also learned how to wing clip and beak trim, with plenty of opportunity for each of us to learn how to handle the birds correctly.
As our day drew to a close, we headed back to the classroom for a final cuppa together and a chance to ask Gillian any remaining questions we had. Everyone on the course had a comprehensive set of course notes to take away to remind us of what we’d learned on our day. Having had a great day in the stunning Devon countryside gaining a sound grounding in what we needed to know to keep our own flock of hens, and having made some new like-minded friends, we said our fond farewells to Gillian, Ian and the chooks before we headed home with heads full of ideas for which birds we might like to get.
The South Yeo Farm Poultry-Keeping for Beginners course runs from 10am-4.30pm and costs £60 per person. The next course date is Saturday 22nd July 2017.
For more information, or to book a course, visit www.southyeofarmeast.co.uk or call 01837 810274.
Feature Anna-Lisa De’Ath
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